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Maybe Zero COVID Was Not So Bad?
Beijing Residents "Self Lockdown", Shanghai Closes Schools
It has been scarcely a week since China abruptly dropped its Zero COVID lockdown policies and restrictions, doing so in the face of a major outbreak of COVID infections across the country.
Some of the responses to the outbreak in various Chinese cities look very much like an unofficial return of Zero COVID.
Now those curbs are suddenly being swept aside in the wake of rare nationwide protests, and the capital of the world’s most populous country appears to be facing a wave of infections as the rapid policy shift presents new challenges ahead of the busy winter travel season.
Downtown Beijing was largely deserted this week as people seemingly stayed home to avoid infections.
Beijing is not under a government-ordered lockdown, but people are hunkering down in their homes all the same.
Beijing is even experiencing some of the hoarding and panic-buying that had been observed during previous lockdown episodes in China, although this time the emphasis is more on medicines and healthcare supplies (e.g., COVID home test kits) than on food.
There are shortages of some medicines as residents stockpile them along with other supplies. Hospitals face a rise in patients and staff catching the virus. And there were social media reports of people panic-buying lemons and peaches after spurious social media trends suggested falsely that they were effective treatments.
Whether there is good reason for the COVID fear in Beijing is uncertain, as China has largely stopped mandatory testing and the government’s official reporting of case counts has become uneven, unreliable, and potentially fudged. However, there are a growing number of anecdotal reports which indicate Beijing is experiencing its worst COVID outbreak ever.
China reported 2,157 new symptomatic infections Thursday, but officials have stopped counting asymptomatic cases and halted mandatory testing. Many people now use rapid test kits at home whose results aren’t often registered, and officials have switched from “prevention” to focusing on “treatment.”
Anecdotally, many people in Beijing describe a widespread outbreak.
With reports of entire offices being closed due to COVID, some observers are using the term “tsunami” to describe the outbreak.
“This is not a spike, this is a tsunami,” said Jin Dong-Yan, a professor at the University of Hong Kong who studies viral diseases.Until now, China’s policy has stood in stark contrast to the West, which spent much of the last three years yo-yoing in and out of lockdowns while suffering millions of deaths. Meanwhile, Beijing has tried to maintain its policy of imposing harsh limits on people’s daily lives whenever an outbreak flared.
According to obervers on the ground in Beijing, people are responding to the outbreak by placing themselves in lockdown for all intents and purposes. They are staying home, avoiding the shopping areas, not going to work, and not using public transportation.
Nor is Bejing an isolated situation. With COVID cases rising in Shanghai, schools are being asked to return to online classes starting December 19.
Shanghai's education bureau has asked most grades in primary, middle and high school to hold classes online from Monday as worsening COVID-19 infections hit major cities across China.
The bureau on Saturday also asked kindergartens and childcare centres in the financial hub to shut all in-person classes from Monday, according to an online statement.
What was until last week mandatory due to the Zero COVID policy is now being done voluntarily, either by people themselves or local governments. The protocols and procedures of Zero COVID apparently are enduring even though the policy is in most respects no longer in effect.
Whether this means that the Zero COVID policy itself will be resurrected, as the current COVID wave overwhelms the Chinese healthcare system, is unknown. Despite having been quite vocal in the past about Zero COVID, Xi Jinping has had nothing at all to say about the policy’s termination.
Now, as authorities rapidly dismantle the strategy and state media urges citizens to “take primary responsibility for their own health” amid mass outbreaks, Xi himself has been silent on the shift. He has yet to make remarks that could be read as an acknowledgment of the rethink more than two weeks after a rare wave of protests prompted it.
In fact, none of the Communist Party leadership installed by Xi two months ago have publicly articulated an adjustment to a policy that has shaped much of the world’s second-largest economy for almost three years. The closest was Vice Premier Sun Chunlan — now off the Politburo — telling a news briefing on Dec. 1 that “our fight against the pandemic is at a new stage.”
Whether this is an effort to “save face” by China’s political leaders or simply a choice to wait and see the impact of not imposing Zero COVID on an outbreak is unknown. Equally unknown is whether or not Xi and the CCP will at some point reimpose Zero COVID in response to the worsening outbreak.
Efforts to avoid being too closely associated with the shift away from Covid Zero bring their own risks. The lack of clear support from the top may feed concern about more sudden changes and discourage investment decisions needed to reverse the economic slowdown. Local officials might be more cautious about making policy decisions that could prompt reprisals from on high.
“Without clear messaging from policymakers, there will still be a high degree of uncertainty as to how long the loosening will last,” said Weifeng Zhong, who studies Chinese government propaganda at the Mercatus Center think tank at George Mason University. “Such uncertainty will no doubt constrain economic activities for months to come, even if the government had no intention to snap back.”
Whatever the reason, the end of the Zero COVID policy has produced a moment of zero leadership from Xi Jinping and his inner circle—something that would seem almost unthinkable in a centralized and totalitarian system such as China.
And it is unquestionably a moment when clear leadership and a clear message is needed. Ending Zero COVID is a decision that merely states what the government will not do going forward. It says little or nothing about what local governments and the people themselves should do to grapple with either the current outbreak or China’s worsening economic situation—the outlook for which is bleak with or without the COVID outbreak.
The lack of messaging from Xi and his inner circle could be interpreted as a complete surrender to the virus, which will now run rampant through China without much government response, potentially infecting millions and resulting in a considerable death toll.
China’s rapid reopening could result in 700,000 deaths and 5 million hospitalizations, according to Sam Fazeli, Bloomberg Intelligence’s chief pharmaceutical analyst. Fazeli characterized China’s mindset now as: “There’s not so much we can do. We’ve done the best we can.”
Indeed, some are projecting the death toll from this wave of COVID to be staggeringly high, with one model projecting as many as 1 million deaths from COVID during the current outbreak.
In the absence of a mass vaccination booster campaign and other measures to reduce the impact of the virus, some 684 people per million would die in a nationwide reopening, according to the report, which was co-authored by Gabriel Leung, the former dean of medicine at the University of Hong Kong.
Leung’s model calls for China to make a more gradual reopening and a slower unwinding of the Zero COVID policy, to moderate the effects of the current outbreak.
Reopening against Omicron transmission should be supported by the following interventions: 1) fourth-dose heterologous boosting 30-60 days before reopening by vaccinating 4-8% of the population per week with ≥85% uptake across all ages; 2) timely antiviral treatment with ≥60% coverage; 3) moderate PHSMs to reduce transmissibility by 47-69%. With fourth-dose vaccination coverage of 85% and antiviral coverage of 60%, the cumulative mortality burden would be reduced by 26-35% to 448-503 per million, compared with reopening without any of these interventions. Simultaneously reopening all provinces under current PHSMs would still lead to hospitalisation demand that are 1.5-2.5 times of surge hospital capacity (2.2 per 10,000 population per day).
What is noteworthy about Leung’s findings and recommendations is that, even with that gradual reopening, the expected mortality of the current COVID wave is only redueced by at most 35%, resulting in 503 per million deaths from COVID, or roughly 700,000 deaths. While an improvement over the approximately 957,600 deaths that result from a mortality burden of 684 per million people in a country with 1.4 billion people, that is still an extremely high death toll.
That death toll stands in stark contrast to China’s official cumulative deaths from COVID to date of 5,235. Readers are left to draw their own conclusions about what that says regarding the credibility of China’s official COVID figures.
Given that the study was funded in part by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, its claim that the abrupt termination of Zero COVID could result in as many as 300,000 additional COVID deaths is astonishing.
That claim is brought into sharp relief by local media reports of two COVID deaths thus far during this current COVID wave, which government officials have stressed is extremely mild, and who have not officially acknowledged any COVID deaths recently.
China has admitted its first Covid deaths since many restrictions were lifted earlier this month.
The news has prompted fears that a predicted wave of deaths may be happening even as the government insists the virus is now no worse than “a cold”.
Two former Chinese state media journalists died from the virus in Beijing this week, according to local media reports.
China’s national health authority has not reported any official Covid deaths since starting to dismantle much of its zero-Covid policy on Dec 7.
The mortality burdens calculated by Leung, if accurate, not only mean that China has fudged and falsified its count of COVID deaths to date (which would surprise no one), but stand as stark proof of Zero COVID’s complete failure to contain or mitigate COVID-19.
Despite Zero COVID’s failure in containing or preventing prior COVID outbreaks, Leung’s mortality projections highlight a potential unintended consequence of the policy’s lockdowns and restrictions: the relative immunological naivete of the average Chinese citizen.
And because China has avoided large waves so far, it lacks the immunity through infection that many other countries have obtained as a side product of their massive and deadly waves.
One possible reason the Omicron variants of COVID have been fairly mild in the US and elsewhere is that large portions of the US population had already had some exposure to COVID before Omicron emerged, thus blunting the impact of the newer variants through cross-immunity and various levels of herd immunity.
This is in keeping with claims of immunological naivete that were put forward by doctors and the corporate in Western countries to explain this year’s extraordinary incidences of juvenile hepatitis cases.
With its usual lack of irony and self-awareness, the same corporate media that promoted and defended the lockdowns is unable to acknowledge that immune retardations which make these otherwise “normal” viral pathogens far more virulent in presentation is a direct—and foreseeable—consequence of locking down half the world in knee-jerk overreaction to the COVID pandemic.
These viruses are not different than they were before, but we are. For one thing, because of Covid restrictions, we have far less recently acquired immunity; as a group, more of us are vulnerable right now. And that increase in susceptibility, experts suggest, means we may experience some … wonkiness as we work toward a new post-pandemic equilibrium with the bugs that infect us.
Following that logic, there is a distinct possibility that an outbreak of Omicron will be worse in China than elsewhere, because Zero COVID has effectively denied the chance for the great mass of the Chinese people to essentially adapt to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, making Omicron as novel a virus to the average Chinese immune system as the original Wuhan strain was.
Indeed, there is already a potential grim confirmation of this possibility: reports are emerging from Beijing that the city’s crematoria are overwhelmed with COVID bodies awaiting cremation since the start of the outbreak last month.
Beijing Dongjiao Crematory, on the eastern edge of the Chinese capital, has experienced a jump in requests for cremation and other funerary services, according to people who work at the compound.
“Since the Covid reopening, we’ve been overloaded with work,” said a woman who answered the phone at the crematorium on Friday. “Right now, it’s 24 hours a day. We can’t keep up.”
Those who have followed the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic will note the eerie ring of familiarity to these reports, as the echo similar claims made in Wuhan in early 2020, during that city’s first lockdown.
Wuhan crematoriums are reportedly working around the clock to cope with the extra workload during the coronavirus outbreak.
It comes as the death toll from the virus climbed to 490 in China on Wednesday.
The bodies of victims who have died from the virus must be cremated rather than buried, China's National Health Commission ruled on February 1.
Then, as now, the media reporting did little to bolster the credibility of China’s official figures.
According to Mr Yun, at least 100 body bags are required every day. The bodies are collected from Wuhan's three main hospitals plus other small hospitals, as well as private residences.
'Since Jan. 28, 90 percent of our employees are working 24/7 … we couldn't go back home,' Mr Yun told The Epoch Times.
'We really need more manpower.'
He explained that the funeral homes in Wuhan are struggling to cope with the influx of bodies. 'Almost all staff at each funeral home in Wuhan are fully equipped, and all Wuhan cremation chambers are working 24 hours,' he said.
It takes no great grasp of mathematics to realize that if 100 body bags were required per day in Wuhan, the death toll far exceeded the official report at the time of 490.
If the media reports of the Beijing outbreak are at all accurate—and much of the information ultimately is sourced anecdotally, meaning caution must be exercised in extrapolating from what is reported to an overall perception of the state of affairs in the city—China, in easing the Zero COVID policy now, in the face of Omicron, is reaping the whirlwind resulting from Zero COVID’s draconian implementation.
If the outbreak is as severe as reported, if the death toll is as severe as the reports of overwhelmed crematoria suggest, if immunological naivete is truly a phenomenon among the Chinese people, then Zero COVID will have made the Omicron virus far more lethal in China than elsewhere.
If the outbreak is as severe as reported, it is quite understandable that Beijing residents would choose to self-impose “lockdown” even when the government mandate has been removed. If the Omicron strain is that dangerous to the Chinese people—and more dangerous than it is to Americans—remaining in one’s home and away from people makes considerable sense as a personal health strategy.
At a minimum, the reports of the ongoing COVID wave in Beijing suggest that Beijing residents believe Omicron is that dangerous, and are reacting accordingly, thus doing of their own volition what Zero COVID demanded via government diktat.
In a moment of extremely perverse irony, Beijing residents may have seen what an unrestrained COVID wave looks like, and have decided Zero COVID might not have been so bad after all.
Was that Xi’s intention in rescinding Zero COVID? That we will likely never know.
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